Holy Moly! Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is a Hit!

FOC prayer journalMarilynne Robinson’s review of this new O’Connor book (really an unedited—by O’Connor– journal written in a spiral notebook when she was but 20 years old and enrolled in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop) is both stimulating and revealing. Robinson was an inspired choice for the job by the editors of the NYT Book Review.


“It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer. O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her “with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,” she begins the next entry: ‘Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.’

Every writer wonders where fictional ideas come from. The best of them often appear very abruptly after a period of imaginative drought. And, mysteriously, they really are good ideas, much superior to the contrivances of conscious invention. Such experiences are by no means exclusive to writers with religious worldviews. But believing them to be literal gifts grants them an objective existence they seem actually to deserve. This entails problems, of course. Fiction rarely shows a divine imprimatur, as its mortal creators are well aware. I would be curious to know what story or part of a story by O’Connor should be attributed to the Lord. It can seem self-aggrandizing or simply bizarre to ascribe any thought or work to a seemingly external source, named or unnamed. Nevertheless, Hesiod, Pindar and any number of poets and prophets before and after them have declared indebtedness of this kind. If they, and O’Connor, were naïve, sophistication has made language poorer. There is no way now to describe an experience many a writer can attest to, having been surprised by it, and having enjoyed it as a particular pleasure and reward of the art. Religion is by its nature more accommodating to the unaccountable than rationalism ever can be.”


Read the entire review at NYT BR 11/15/13 – Review of Flannery O’Conner’s “Prayer Journal”

It is amazing to me that so many years after her death, O’Connor has suddenly become trendy. Her name is now everywhere in highbrow circles, scholars, authors and publishers are mining it for everything they can get. The New Yorker published a long excerpt (entitled “My Dear God”) from this journal prior to the book’s publication, and now the NYT Book Review publishes an appreciative review … All very curious to me.

Flannery O’Connor, considered a freak and hick by many in the literary world during her lifetime and whose characters and stories were often dismissed as “grotesque,” has strangely in recent times become “cool.” Cool?

Forgive me if I doubt the sincerity behind all this after-the- fact applause and adulation. There are fads and trends among Lit Wits exactly as there are among the hoi poloi. It’s cool to dig FOC because she is the coolest, if only for the moment.

Major writers and their works have an ebb and flow in critical estimation and regard, they come and they go, they have phases and cycles of appreciation and interest like the moon and the tides. O’Connor is the hotty today (so bizarre to me), but you can bet your own sweet library, every last book in it, that ten years from now it will be someone else.  Byron? Chaucer? Eliot? Even you could be the golden child of the hoity toity down the road, who knows?

Yet in the case of FOC, the religion card or angle is especially interesting because I think Catholic authors, the best and most literary of them, have always been a fascinating puzzle to the literary world, if not an irritant. Makes them scratch their heads and wonder: How can they write so well and originally, how can they be so sophisticated and well read and educated, and still (I can hear this behind closed doors—and have, in fact) Goddammit, for Chrissake, be … well, hell! You know, how can they actually believe in God? And worse (ick!) be Catholic?

A mere coincidence, I’m sure (?), that Canadian short story master Alice Munro, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is also a Catholic.

Maybe Catholic is trending?  The Colbert Effect?

Hilarious.  Blame the nuns, the Jesuits, the strong unrelenting emphasis on reading, writing and critical thinking from day one in a Catholic education. Oh, yeah, and the Holy Spook 😉


More effusive praise from high places not noted for their interest in things spiritual:

  “Miraculous . . . Both a blueprint for her fiction and a prophetic dreaming-out of her life’s purpose and pattern . . . Beneath the surface, as recorded on the 47 and a half handwritten pages to which we now have access, [O’Connor] was refining her vocation with the muscularity and spiritual ferocity of a young saint-in-waiting.” —James Parker, The Atlantic

“A startlingly different view of the religious O’Connor.” —Marian Ryan, Slate

“If you’ve already read everything ever written by Flannery O’Connor and crave more, take heart: This recently discovered diary of her long-form letters to God will make you especially thankful.” —Abbe Wright, O: The Oprah Magazine

“Perhaps the most intimate writing that has yet surfaced from O’Connor.” —Bo Emerson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Religious or not, the daily devotionals written by one of America’s greatest writers between 1946 and 1947 are uplifting and inspiring, as well as a great insight into the mind of Flannery O’Connor.” —Jason Diamond, Flavorpill, 10 Must Reads for November

“Gorgeous” —Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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5 Responses to Holy Moly! Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is a Hit!

  1. Reblogged this on idealisticrebel and commented:
    A wonderful accomplishment. Peace, Barbara


  2. Micah says:

    Still can’t figure whether to count it tragic or heroic for gifted people to gain appreciation after the fact, often terminally after the fact. Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King jr, Princess Di, heck, even Jesus – random examples, I know (long day), but hopefully you see my point. They’re shunned or maltreated one way or another whilst they’re alive, and idolized after they die. The whole ahead-of-their-time-thing I get, but still, it’s just kinda scary to think how obvious their virtuosity is now and consider how obscure, to some, it was then. Crazy old world we live in.

    As for catholics whose faith inspired their work, man are you right, the list is indeed long. Bono, Ayrton Senna (my personal favourite. His charisma and talent was undoubtedly down to his faith), pretty much every generation of the Brazil national football team, Jim Caviezel, Copernicus, Da Vinci, Marie Curie. I mean, between being a German Jew (don’t get me started) and catholic you could probably account for half the world’s major philosophical/art advances.


    • Thanks for visiting, Micah. Yeah, sad and disconcerting. Really new important/necessary ideas, however embodied, whether in science or the arts, have always been considered crazy and dangerous. They are ridiculed, dismissed, or persecuted. It is scary, as you say. Just look at history. Yet they somehow survive, and not only that– their creators are resurrected, their names and work are rehabilitated, and achieve some sort of immortality. Tragic yet noble at once. Heroic? Beyond me, but it’s the pattern.


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